John Waters, the people’s pervert, self declared “filth elder” and director of Hairspray, Pink Flamingoes and Serial Mom, among lots of other weird and disturbing films, is an ambassador for the shocking in art and cinema.
The first London exhibition of his art is on at the Sprüth Magers gallery at the moment, and he recently gave the commencement address at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) – seriously, watch it. It’s amazing.
Waters has, throughout his career, tried to shock people. He wants to be despised, hated, vilified. In his speech to the graduates at RISD, he told them “go out into the world and fuck it up beautifully”. But is that art?
Perhaps the only way you can be original nowadays is by being outrageous, saying the unsayable and really not pulling any punches. Shock tactics employed for the sake of it aren’t high on many people’s list of elements that make for successful artistic endeavour. It’s cheap and tacky and perhaps sometimes the easy option.
Game of Thrones, for example, seems to chuck in the odd rape scene for good measure – you know, in case you forgot that world wasn’t very nice. It’s like being beaten over the head with a DVD box set of the extended edition of The Lord of The Rings trilogy while someone screams at you that it isn’t all elves and fucking fairies, you know. This shit is for real. Except, you know, it’s not, it’s a made up fantasy place with plenty of horribleness. It’s like the exact opposite of Star Trek episodes when they get stuck in the holo-suite and have to dress up and defeat a monster before they can get out. Or someone has to dress up as a lady or a Klingon or whatever to convince some visiting dignitary that everything is fine and stuff. The comic relief episodes, the ones when they really ham it up and not even some dude in a red uniform you’ve never seen before has to die. Sometimes they just needed a bit of light episode to break up the monotony of the serious space exploration (I said serious). Whereas Game of Thrones needs to break up the monotony of horrible shit happening with really fucking horrific shit happening. And frankly it’s not that shocking anymore.
And it’s not at all what Waters is talking about. Shocking for the sake of it actually seems to end up not being shocking, especially when you can see it coming a mile off. The most interesting writing advice I ever got was not to do what seems obvious. In the land of make believe, anything can happen, so why chose the thing that has been done over and over, again and again, so that people just get bored of it.
Waters means real shocking stuff that subverts expectations. In his talk at RISD (again, watch it, it’s only 12 minutes long) he talks about his film Hairspray, probably his most commercial, and what he calls a “Trojan horse”, saying it “snuck into middle America and never got caught”. Schools do adaptations of it and there’s even been a Hollywood remake with John Travolta. What was once considered trash is now a classic. Waters says, “I didn’t change, society did”.
That’s what the best art, at its most shocking, can do.